Ugly Echoes of Historical Miscegenation Panic in Federal Trial of Arbery's Killers

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tags: racism, miscegenation, hate crimes, Ahmaud Arbery

Elise Lemire is Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Miscegenation”: Making Race in America as well as, more recently, Battle Green Vietnam: The 1971 March on Concord, Lexington, and Boston. 

This past Valentine’s Day, the jury hearing a federal hate crimes case learned that four days prior to murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a twenty-five-year-old Black man, William “Roddie” Bryan, who is White, referred to his (presumably White) daughter’s Black boyfriend in a hateful way.

The Associated Press quoted his text message: she “has her [racial epithet] now."


According to the AP, Bryan also called his daughter’s boyfriend a “monkey.”       


Mr. Bryan’s language makes clear that the N-word is more than an insult.  It is a means of asserting that a Black person is subhuman. 


The revelation of Mr. Bryan’s text messages indicates that Mr. Arbery was caught at the intersection of a set of White beliefs that crystalized between the American Revolution and the Civil War, when descriptions and pictorial representations of Blacks romantically and sexually coupling with Whites proliferated in the United States, the results of which were new words for describing race and race relations, new laws for regulating interracial liaisons, and new and deadly ways of policing Black people’s movements.


The first time the specter of interracial sex was used by Whites to foment hysteria occurred in 1802, after a report was published in Richmond, Virginia, that President Thomas Jefferson was using Sally Hemings, one of the hundreds of women the author of the Declaration of Independence enslaved on his plantation, as “a concubine.”


Published in The Recorder; or, Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany

September 1, 1802


The Federalist Party flooded the public sphere with lascivious poems, songs, and political prints about the rumor.  Some, like “A Song Supposed to Have Been Written by the Sage of Monticello,” put words in the President’s mouth that were meant to turn citizens against him:


Of all the damsels on the green,

   On mountain, or in valley,

A lass so luscious ne’er was seen,

   As Monticellian Sally.

Yankee doodle, who’s the noodle?

   What wife were half so handy?

To breed a flock, of slaves for stock,

   A blackamoor’s the dandy.


Americans had coopted the British song “Yankee Doodle” during the Revolution as a means of swelling patriotic fervor.  The Federalists, however, invoked it to argue that the Democratic-Republican Party’s investment in open elections and widespread suffrage was a dangerous endgame.  At a time when three-fifths of the enslaved population was counted for determining representation in the House of Representatives, the Federalists invoked the specter of interracial sex to argue that those who engaged in it were intent on increasing their wealth and power, leaving less wealthy Whites without either.


In the 1830s, when abolitionists began to demand an immediate end to slavery, their political opponents saturated the public sphere yet again with textual descriptions and lithographed images of abolitionists and their supporters engaged in interracial dancing, kissing, and marriages.  In many of these portrayals, Blacks were portrayed in profile with greatly exaggerated lips and facial angles meant, like Bryan’s text message, to link them to nonhuman primates.  Often the Whites portrayed were recognizable abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison with his distinctively lanky frame and receding hairline.  Whites purchased these prints for home display, a means of asserting that Black economic and social ambitions were laughable on the grounds that Blacks, being monkeys, were a distinct species from Whites.  The implication was clear: Whites should be consolidating, not giving away, their political and other resources.


E. W. Clay, “Practical Amalgamation” (1839)

Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia


In those days of deadly anti-abolitionist riots, interracial sex and marriage were described in metallurgical terms as “amalgamation” or a mixture of race blood.  This changed when a third wave of White hysteria about interracial sex and marriage broke over the country in the wake of Republican president Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  The opposing party was not pro-slavery, but like most Whites at that time, Democrats wanted clearly demarcated limits to Black freedom.  In one pamphlet, published in 1864, two Democrats aiming to foil Lincoln’s bid for re-election accused him of advocating what they termed “miscegenation,” a neologism crafted from the Latin to refer to race-mixing.  In another pamphlet, published the same year, an interracial couple was shown in profile to make the case yet again that a species boundary would be violated if the cause of Black freedom continued to be advanced.


L. Seaman, “What Miscegenation Is!

And What We are to Expect Now that Mr. Lincoln is Re-Elected” (1865)

Courtesy: Boston Public Library


While the term “miscegenation” has almost disappeared from the American lexicon, it was the term used for decades to set limits on Black freedom and equity.  So-called miscegenation laws, not struck down by the Supreme Court until 1967, were a powerful means used by Whites to deny Blacks their full legal rights.


In short, the insistence by White men that they must use legal and extralegal means to protect White women from Black men has always been a proxy for White men’s fear that equity will result in the loss of White power and entitlements.  (Sadly, some White women, as seems to have been the case with Amy Cooper, have weaponized this history in a similar attempt to hold on to what they perceive as their White right to resources, even if just a piece of parkland where their dog can roam freely.)  A case in point: in 1955, a year after Brown v. Board of Education ended racial segregation in public schools, Emmett Till was lynched by White men who convinced themselves the Black fourteen-year-old had flirted with a White woman.  Since the election of the nation’s first Black president in 2008, the nation has been engulfed in another wave of hate crimes against African Americans, with Ahmaud Arbery just one of scores of victims.


Roddie Bryan has already been convicted on three counts of felony murder in Georgia state court, but because Georgia did not have a state hate crimes law at the time of Mr. Arbery’s murder, prosecutors shied away from mentioning race, an omission that greatly pained those Americans who understand that the young man would still be alive if he had been jogging while White.  Instead, because he was Black, Mr. Arbery was lynched. 


The Valentine’s Day revelations are an opportunity for the Arbery family to finally get justice for Ahmaud with a declaration in court that, at least so far as Roddie Bryan’s involvement goes, Ahmaud Arbery was another victim of the White fear that with equity will come interracial love and the end of White power.